Humphry Repton was born in 1752. After various careers he decided in 1788 to become a landscape designer. He in fact, described himself as a ‘landscape gardener’, combining the art of the landscape painter with the practicality of the gardener.
His business card, shown here, holds many clues to his practice and philosophy.
The card shows the man himself, with the tools of his trade, assessing the site. Following the lead of Pope and Kent, and the call to respect the ‘genius of the place’, Repton argued that changes to a landscape be “…founded on a due attention to the character and situation of the place …” It is this early part of the design process for which Repton has perhaps become most famous, particularly through his ‘Red Books’. These presented Repton’s assessments to his many clients, including a ground plan, descriptions of his survey and ideas for improvements. They featured his watercolour paintings, many of which used an overlay to help the client visualize his ideas. A flap could be lifted to reveal the improved scene beneath. In his Red Book for Fearney Hall (1789) a wall and agricultural building disappear revealing a curving driveway and a new view on the house. At Vinters (1797) an undulation in the landscape is filled with water, becoming a winding ‘river’, complete with boats.
The card also illustrates Repton’s painterly interest in landscape composition. The foreground of trees and varied foliage acts as a frame through which the land beyond is viewed, a device frequently utilized in his designs. He admitted to a “…partiality for a Terrace …” near the house affording views into the distance. He advocated removing trees or raising their canopies to open up vistas and make the best of existing topography. Repton was also interested in perspective and scale and in using light and colour to trick the eye, to make an estate seem larger or conceal a boundary.
The lake illustrates Repton’s fascination with water. His cut-outs often show smaller pieces of water joined to create a larger extent, preferably with an unseen end, as at Attingham. Above the lake in the trees is a tower, an example of his use of buildings to add interest to a scene. At Blaise Castle he built a Woodman’s Cottage, humanizing previously uninhabited woodland and on the card, the view is enlivened by workmen, illustrating Repton’s philosophy that a garden should not block out the wider world.
Repton, was seen by Payne Knight, as one of the improvers who, with their designer tools destroyed nature, making “…one dull, vapid, smooth, and tranquil scene.” Although appreciating some of Knight’s Picturesque principles Repton argued that “… utility must often take the lead of beauty, and convenience be preferred to picturesque effect …” This is key to Repton’s work and achievement. The words ‘convenience’ and ‘comfort’ appear frequently in his writings. He moved away from Brown’s style with “… a huge pile, standing naked on a vast grazing ground” seeking instead to reconnect garden to house.
Repton’s gardens are places of colour and beauty where a relaxed way of life in the house can continue outside. They “… may be considered as so many different apartments belonging to its state, its comfort and its pleasure.” He designed conservatories and greenhouses to help this connection. Near the house he advocated a return to order and symmetry, reintroducing the terrace and fence to separate art from nature.
Not all of Repton’s many designs were realized and he often built on the work of others, but his Red Books and writings did influence designers in his time and others since. His compartmentalizing of large estates into smaller gardens such as at Ashridge and Woburn perhaps set the scene for Sissinghurst and Hidcote. His desire to create flow and unity between house and garden, garden and estate was put into more thorough practice by Jekyll and Lutyens. As Fearnley-Whittingstall comments, “He was not afraid to design gardens that were as pretty as a picture…” creating beautiful spaces for plants and people. His methods and desire to create gardens to suit the necessities of human life have, I believe, helped to define the role of garden designer.